Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Once and Future King

T.H. White's The Once and Future King is supposed to be about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Merlyn and magic, hawks and heraldry, Lancelot and Guinevere, chivalry and Merry Olde England.  It is...but what it's really about is how to go on living in the world in which it was published, 1939.

It is about the tragedy of what happens when hate wins.  It's about jealousy and grudges and original sin.  It tries to explain how Hitler and fascism could take root and threaten to annihilate humankind and snuff out joy.

It's about doing your best, trying to think through insurmountable obstacles.  It's about ordinary people put in extraordinary positions and believing in justice and goodness despite all odds.

I've been reading it all during the month of June for the wonderful GoodReads group TuesBookTalk Read-a-Long.

Wikipedia says it was published as a collected work in 1958, with the composite books published earlier:

The Sword in the Stone - 1939, about the boy Wart, who was trained by Merlyn the magician and eventually pulled Excaliber from the stone in the village square, thereby proving that he was the rightful King of England.  This part totally reminded me of Harry Potter on multiple occasions.
The Queen of Air and Darkness - 1939, about the Orkney clan and their witchy mother Morgause, Arthur's half-sister and mother of Gawaine, Agravaine, Gaheris, Gareth, and Arthur's son, Mordred.
The Ill-Made Knight - 1940, about the greatest, and ugliest, knight in the world, Lancelot and his misbegotten love affair with Arthur's wife, Guinevere.
The Candle in the Wind - 1958, about the civil war that destroyed Camelot and buried all the aspects of civilization that Arthur tried so hard to imprint upon his world.

One of the many things I enjoyed about it was the amalgamation of the various myths and legends of Arthurian Britain.  It is a collection of stories whose narrative thread transforms itself into a powerful tragic arc as the book unfolds.  I loved how the narrator remained firmly rooted in the 20th century and addressed his 20th century readers while discussing the various sources of the legends and the "imaginary" real historical figures such as William the Conqueror and Henry IV and how they fit into Arthurian legend.

Occasionally, I got a bit frustrated with the political rambling but then I think the book was, more than anything else, a coping mechanism for dealing with the mad, mad world of the 20th century.

It's definitely a book worth reading--it was immensely popular, touched a deep nerve, represented hope, attempted to explain evil, and wrapped all those feelings up in warm blanket of mythological familiarity, not just with Arthurian legend but Greek and Roman tragedy.

La Mort d'Arthur (The Death of King Arthur) by James Archer (1860)
I've been toying with the idea of classifying this book as a Classic.  I think it's in that category for me--it will be read and studied and enjoyed and discussed for a long time to come. It is well written.  It is of its time but timeless as well.  Thoughts?


  1. I haven't read it yet. It's been on my wishlist for years and I have it on Kindle. I just need to read it! I would say it is a classic - even without reading it - Arthurian legend, Merlin, Camelot it has always appealed to me but I hadn't realised it also related to life in the 20th century.

  2. I have been meaning to read this for so long. I remember during the 1980s when I was reading a lot of books similar to this I came close to doing do.

    Your post is reminding me that I am decades overdue :)

    Among many reasons to read this, is as you mention, the theme of coping with evil that is seemingly triumphant. That seems fascinating especially in light of the time that this was written.

  3. Beautiful reflection on the meaning (s) of this book and why it is still so worth reading. You have gotten to the heart and soul of White's project the way White got to the heart and soul of the Arthurian stories.

  4. I would definitely say it's a classic--it's often read in schools and has been for years. My husband listened to this one on audio recently and he said the writing style reminded him a bit of Terry Pratchett.

  5. I remember reading parts of this in Junior HS. I was already obsessed with the Arthurian Legends as a boy so, for once, it was schoolwork I didn't mind doing. Of course, I was pretty wholly ignorant of the subtext at that time - and I don't remember anything being taught about that. I was always busy trying to find out what the hierarchy of knights was, who was the best, the second best, etc. etc. :-)

  6. Oh, I wish I would have joined you guys for this one!

  7. I have to admit I'm surprised at the question of whether this book is a classic. I think it definitely has the quality and longevity to be considered one. It also is an amazing and unusual take ON the classics (especially Malory). I love your opening paragraphs and think they describe the book perfectly.